Monday, September 17, 2018

Forging connections between lost L.A. murals and muralism in San Francisco

Most good ideas, the ones that last long enough to be executed, are birthed through trial and error. That was what the Exquisite Mural Project was - hard work, laden with questions that needed to be answered, but ultimately a product of love. It was born out of a desire to share the exhibition Murales Rebeldes: L. A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege (co-produced with LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes), with young people, to help forge connections between lost and disappearing murals in Los Angeles and muralism in San Francisco, and to always emphasizing that each individual could be and is an artist in his/her/their own right.

It began with the surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse is played with a piece of paper folded (portrait style) into thirds. One person draws the top portion, another draws the middle, and the final person completes the bottom portion. The surprise is that no one can see what the prior person drew, so when it is completed, an oftentimes wild and hilarious image is produced. Jessica Hough, CHS's Director of Exhibitions, loved the game and told me about how artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo played it, albeit in a much more tongue in cheek way. Drawing from that concept, I thought it would be really fun to take a large piece of paper, fold it (landscape style) into thirds and have different students, artists, friends, and colleagues join in. The final "exquisite mural" piece would have three different people communicating across it, from different times, different locations, and perhaps without ever meeting each other. It was exciting to think of what connections, disconnections, and continuities might appear. Thus, The Exquisite Mural Project was born! That was the idea.
Mural created as a collaboration by three participants during the Exquisite Mural project
All good ideas face the challenge of execution. Who would do it? How would we do it? What if it didn't work? What if the kids didn't understand the concept? These questions helped us develop the the project and avoid many pitfalls, but not all of them! I began to work with my colleagues at CHS to identify after school and summer programs we might collaborate with. I immediately thought of Mission Beacon, an after-school summer program that we have worked with in the past. Another colleague suggested Jamestown and introduced me to his contact there. We were on our way to the answer of one of our questions: who would do it?

In order to figure out how the project would work, several CHS staff members from different departments came together to share ideas and concepts. Each person presented a few options and we even brought in an outside arts educator who offered great feedback and ideas. Finally, we devised the process: sites and site supervisors would be informed of the project ahead of time and would be sent examples of completed Exquisite Murals, in order to prepare them for the project and a visit to CHS. Groups of students would come to CHS, where they would meet a docent who would engage them in a discussion about muralism, graffiti, and the public art in their own communities. The group would then have a conversation with the docent inside the exhibition galleries about concepts embedded in the murals and stories on display: the Chicano Movement, social activism, art making, and preservation. Finally, they would sit down with snacks, be taught the "exquisite mural" concept, and create their own piece of art.

(L to R) CHS Executive Director Anthea Hartig, Programs & Visitor Experience Manager Patricia Pforte, poet Eileen Torrez, Guest Concierge & Docent Erik Zuniga, and L.A. muralist Ernesto de la Loza.
Once we had the project concepts nailed down, I elicited feedback from staff at Mission Beacon and Jamestown  to ensure that the project would work well with their students. I learned that it was essential to have docents that spoke Spanish as well as English, that the kids receive snacks, and that the trip be several hours long. They also made suggestions as to how to engage the students with the content. I took that feedback and incorporated it into the project.

We decided to do a test-run of the project shortly after the opening of Murales Rebeldes in San Francisco in April. Barbara Carrasco, one of the exhibition’s featured artists, was in town, and was eager to participate. We learned a lot from the trial run, including the importance of language skills, and that every group was unique and required flexibility.

One of the first changes that we made was involving Erik Zuniga, who works at CHS as a Guest Concierge. Erik had expressed interest in the exhibition, is originally from Los Angeles, and is bi-lingual. After Erik confirmed his availability, we discussed the types of questions we might ask the kids and devised strategies to engage them if they strayed from the content or became bored. We continued to re-work the tour and after each one, discussed new strategies and questions to pose. Towards the end, Erik independently devised methods that were successful with the younger kids. So much of the project involved circling back, occasionally abandoning old processes for new ones, and not being too hard on ourselves when things did not go as planned. I reminded myself, Erik, and others that keeping it simple and being flexible would be our constant friends during this process. Those two ideas stayed with us through the project’s four months.

So, what came of all of this? We served 250 individuals from after school and summer camp groups from Mission Beacon and Jamestown between April and July, and brought the project to the Oakland Museum of California to serve another 100 people, bringing our total reach to 350. We also hosted tours from schools across San Francisco, Dewitt Anderson School, and a Mission dance group, among others. With hundreds of kids inspired by the exhibition and now aware of its message, we could step back and be proud of the work.

Exquisite Murals adorning the gallery walls above the ¡Murales Rebeldes! exhibition. 
What did we learn? We learned to reach out and collaborate, take suggestions and try out new ideas, utilize our strengths, and think positively in challenging moments. Lastly, we learned to expand and contract the project based on our needs as well as those of  the group. Erik also developed new skills, and got to work with muralists from Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

I look back at this project with great fondness and am reminded of what it taught me: that if you have a good idea, remember to think about how to execute it and do that thinking with all the people involved. With collaboration as your shining light and your foundation, you can never go wrong.

Watch a video of our Exquisite Mural celebration and poetry reading:

by Patty Pforte, Programs & Visitor Experience Manager

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Teaching California, An Origin Story

Funded by a $5 million grant from the State Department of Education to the California Historical Society, Teaching California offers schools and teachers classroom-ready curriculum designed to engage students in exciting and inspiring investigations of the past. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, this program provides a research-based approach to improve student reading, writing, critical thinking and civic engagement, all aligned with the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework.

We sat down with the directors of the two organizations spearheading the project to find out how Teaching California came to be. A former high school history and government teacher, Nancy McTygue serves as the California History-Social Science Project's Executive Director. Anthea Hartig serves as Executive Director and CEO of the California Historical Society. She is a Ph.D. historian and former history and cultural studies teacher. 

               Anthea Hartig, California Historical Society
Nancy McTygue, California History-Social Science Project

1. What is Teaching California and what prompted this collaboration between CHS and CHSSP?

When complete, Teaching California will offer K-12 teachers an innovative, free, online collection of instructional resources, organized by grade level, standard, and investigative question, to support the implementation of California’s History-Social Science Framework.

The inspiration for Teaching California actually came from K-12 teachers who were excited by the new Framework but lacked the appropriate resources to implement the instructional approach outlined in the document. I told Anthea about conversations I had with teachers across the state as part of the Framework rollout – teachers who wanted access to engaging and relevant primary sources, organized to specifically (and easily) address the inquiry-based instructional model we had outlined in the Framework.

Anthea and I had met years before; she served on advisory committee for our History Blueprint initiative. We continued to talk even after that development period ended because our organizations share a commitment to public history and a desire to provide teachers with the most engaging and up to date resources for their students. When I heard this request for resources again and again at Framework rollout events, I mentioned it to Anthea, who immediately connected the dots to CHS’s archive and their desire to have it accessed widely. At that point we thought about what our organizations do best and how working closely together could lead to an important synergy that would mean we could produce something that neither of us could do alone and all for a relatively small investment from the state. We’re deep in development right now, but I think we’re both getting excited about what this may actually offer to teachers and more importantly, California’s students.

The birth of Teaching California stemmed from the completion of the new Framework for K-12 history and the real need that we felt in the field from teachers. From CHS’s perspective, the creation of our new digital capacities, as well as raising funds and staff competencies in order to launch our digital library, was the other stream that joined this effort.

On a more global level, Teaching California was the result of a huge and unmet need to fulfill the dreams of those who have been pushing to teach with primary sources rather than with textbooks. This includes Sam Wineburg at Stanford, whose work “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past” was groundbreaking in getting students to engage with primary sources. We also recognize the need to frame California experiences, peoples, and the phenomenal diversity of our past and to incorporate that into contemporary life and the dominate narrative of how history is taught.

We were very lucky to be able to find support from legislative leaders like Assemblymember Phil Ting as well as Tom Adams at the California Department of Education. We found willing partners all over the state but especially here at San Francisco Unified. The grant that we received not only allows for us to create a free online portal of discovery through primary sources, but also allows CHS to delve into the depths of our collection which is underused and somewhat unknown, and to continue to digitize it to make it accessible to everyone. We are creating partnerships with other archives across the state and the nation in order to help bring forth their material and make them available as part of Teaching California as well.

2. Why is this project relevant and needed now?

I don’t know if Teaching California could have happened in a prior time; I don’t think the conditions necessary to make it a reality existed. As I detailed above, the project originated in the minds of teachers tasked with teaching California’s new Framework. As the writers of the new Framework, we are obviously committed to its implementation and, knowing a lack of relevant resources could kill the momentum developed during its writing and adoption, we were especially keen to respond to those teachers asking for help.

In addition, although the business of education still lags behind its private and even non-profit colleagues, I think we’ve now reached at least the necessary minimum level of access to and effective use of digital resources in classrooms across the state. According to a recent newsletter from the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), 356 remote and underserved schools have just joined 100% of county offices of education, 87% of school districts (904), 83% (8,739) of schools, and over 5 million students who are already connected to CalREN, the California Research and Education Network, a high-capacity computer network with more than 8,000 miles of optical fiber. This number isn’t everything – many classrooms actually have fairly limited access to internet-connected technology and aren’t ready to scale up for wider access. However, it does bode well for our goal of providing access to our collection of classroom-ready materials, including never-seen-before primary sources from CHS’s archive.

Moreover, I believe that California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) contributed to the need for resources like Teaching California. Passed in 2013, LCFF gave local schools unprecedented flexibility in how they spend their money from the state. Although I’m sure this was not the authors’ intent, what this has meant, in practice, is that some schools have decided to prioritize their now flexible funding on costs that don’t directly address a teacher’s need for quality instructional materials. Instead of spending money adopting new textbooks or the latest instructional materials, for example, some schools and districts are investing their money in staff salaries and benefits, facilities, transportation, and any number of other important and necessary expenses. The whole purpose of LCFF was to allow schools to prioritize their spending to areas of greatest need and to put an end to the era of inflexible (and honestly, sometimes ridiculous) categorical spending. An unintended consequence of that, however, is that for some teachers in some schools, this has meant that they no longer can count on their districts buying new materials for their classrooms – even after the adoption of a new Framework that fundamentally reconsiders the instructional practice of classroom teachers. When completed, the Teaching California collection won’t take the place of a comprehensive and high quality instructional material package, but it will go a long way to helping teachers begin and - after time and additional support – truly achieve implementation of the new Framework.

I used to think that American popular discourse, especially American political popular discourse, was ahistorical and a-intellectual, that people didn’t really care about historical context. Now the tenor of the times is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-historical and the need for a critical lens and the capacity to ascertain the real from the fake, the propaganda from the document, is more important than ever. We’ve seen this on the international stage, especially in relation to cyber security during the election of 2016.

I also think the need for us, as a people, to not forget our past in all of its beauty and all of its ugliness is more important than ever. America is careening towards its 250th year - what does that look like? What does mean for us? Understanding the basic materials of history as a doorway into discovery and learning is increasingly important. It’s also very important for our youth to see themselves reflected in the past and to comprehend that they too are part of a long, complicated set of movements, migrations, immigrations, and change. I hope that seeing themselves reflected in history inspires students to recognize that they can be agents of change. History is made by people and the choices that we make every day, whether it be yesterday or 10,000 years ago.

No one should be excluded from the richness of the past. A lot of teachers don’t have extensive training in history, especially in grades K-8 when they must teach a very broad range of subjects. Many high school teachers are incredible historians yet are feeling like they don’t have enough support or materials. We want to do everything we can to help these teachers access primary sources and powerful visuals so that all students, regardless of their literacy and language capacities, can find meaningful engagement with history. In the end this can truly bring about the kind of change that I and CHS would love to see in relation to history – that it increasingly becomes a vibrant and critical part of our contemporary lives and an empowering and enlightening tool of utility that creates a more just and informed world.

Portrait of seven young Japanese girls wearing kimonos at Mission School, ca. 1900_USC digital collections_CHS-5722

3. Why is it important that content from CHS’s collections (and from other repositories across the state) be included in Teaching California’s instructional materials?

My former faculty advisor, Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair at the University of Virginia, told me a story years ago that really sticks with me. He had recently moved to Davis from the East Coast to work in the history department. One day in his early American history class, while lecturing on colonial history (which primarily focuses on English colonies on the East Coast), a student raised her hand and asked, “Professor Taylor, what was happening out here in California at that time?” With tongue firmly in cheek, Alan apparently replied, “nothing,” and after getting a laugh and then acknowledging his joke, he went on with the lecture. Although short-lived, that exchange stuck with him.

American history didn’t just happen on the East Coast and students living here in California have a right to know about their state’s role in our nation’s beginnings, as well as the rest of our collective history. Alan became so committed to this pursuit – to widening the traditional geographic borders of America’s beginnings – that he reorganized his curriculum and even penned a book on the subject, American Colonies, in 2001. American Colonies offers both historians and classroom teachers a much more comprehensive view of the past – beyond the Atlantic seaboard to the entire continent. And so while I’m very reluctant to compare our work to Alan’s, I do believe we share a commitment to California citizens. We deserve to know our state’s history and how that history helped define both the place where we live and our national narrative. Using sources from the CHS’s archive (as well as other state and national collections) can go a long way in making that a reality.

When you get to a textbook stage of production, the curation and the choice of primary sources have been through many variations with a lot of eyes and minds upon them. We don’t think of textbooks as being particularly curated but of course they are. A set of sources is used to inspire historians to write the text. When you think of something like the new Framework, it is an interpretation itself of the state’s standards. We haven’t changed the standards in a long time but we have changed the state Framework through a lot of people’s hard work. So, taking the Framework and using that foundation to consider all the different archival materials in all of the different repositories throughout the state, nation, and world, opens us up to a phenomenal range of possibilities in regards to picking these sources, curating them, and giving them to teachers, students, and their families to investigate and better understand.

The other key driver for me as a public historian is raising awareness of the needs and power of our collections and inspiring people to do research with our primary sources. Obviously digitization leads to a greater amount of accessibility but I hope it also leads people back to the actual archives because for everything we digitize, there’s always going to be more - more boxes and folders that we just didn’t digitize because they were too fragile or we didn’t have the funds. This kind of layered curation brings with it remarkable possibilities as well as honors other archives and libraries who have been working for years to collect, steward, preserve, and make accessible their collections. 

4. The Teaching California team is currently creating inquiry sets as part of the project. Can you break down what they are and what they consist of?

We’re creating inquiry sets, which are basically a collection of primary sources, teaching resources, and literacy support, aligned to the new Framework. When the collection is completed and posted online, teachers will be able to visit CHS’s Teaching California website, and search by grade, standard, and investigative question from the new Framework. From there, they will be able to download a set of relevant primary sources, excerpted as necessary by grade-level, teaching resources, and at least one strategy designed to improve student reading, writing, and / or oral discourse ability.

What I think is interesting about the creation of inquiry sets is they are being created by archivists, librarians, historians, and educators together. We think this is a very different way than how other efforts to bring forth primary sources have been created. As a teacher, you generally don’t get to sit down with a reference librarian and really think about what works and what the students will be excited by. The historians and educators at CHSSP and the archivists, historians, and reference librarians at CHS are that core team. This makes the construction of the inquiry sets a really powerful and dynamic pathway into learning.

5. How do you envision teachers using what we create for Teaching California in the classroom? 

After selecting the appropriate source set, teachers will be able to download the individual sources to display online or print out for student review. They’ll be able to download classroom-ready handouts for their students, special “for the teacher” resources that situate each source in the larger historical narrative, a diverse collection of teaching suggestions, and literacy strategies, aligned with California’s English Language Development Standards.

My hope for teachers, having been one, is that they’ll trust in what we’ve created, that they will be engaged by it. They may have even helped pilot it and test it. By the time Teaching California comes to their classroom and it’s a busy Tuesday morning and they’ve reviewed the inquiry sets and lesson for that day, I hope that they’ll find within what we’ve produced a sense of wonder and discovery and newness. I hope they’ll find a story they’ve never heard before, a landscape they’ve never seen depicted, a letter they’ve never read, or a map they’ve never looked at or used. The teachers will be the conduits for bringing archives into the classroom and for helping those sources come alive. I hope the sparks of connection and learning fly and that a sense of belonging to the human continuum of experience is awakened. 

Man atop ladder in roots of tree at Mariposa Grove of Big Trees

6. What has been the most exciting part, or interesting discovery during the creation process so far?

We have a grant from the Library of Congress; we’re part of the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium, which works to introduce K-12 teachers to the Library’s digitized resources which are available at When we first got the grant, my colleague Tuyen Tran (who coincidentally leads our Teaching California project) and I went to DC for the orientation meeting. During the meeting, the archivist pulled out a journal from Christopher Columbus – we actually got to hold it in our own hands and look through it. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my professional career. I had a similar experience at CHS’s archive – Anthea’s archivist showed us a biography on Junipero Serra from 1787 – and again, I was struck by just how cool that was and how this gem from our own state should be easily accessible to California teachers and students. 

[Relacion historica de la vida y apostolicas tareas del venerable padre fray Junipero Serra … /escrita por el R.P.L. F.R. Francisco Palou, 1787]; [Vault 175]; California Historical Society.
One of the challenging things that we’ve encountered so far as a team is taking our desires to use a California lens - which could be an archival lens, a lens of making sure we address native history, Spanish colonial history, and Mexican republican history - and bring all of that back into the broader way in which we teach American history and even world history. Let’s look at world history, which is taught in the 10th grade and a little bit of 6th and 7th grade. You learn about medieval and early modern times and you might ask what that has to do with California, but in our collection we have an early astronomical scientific treatise published in 1680 that talks about watching comets. This document makes all sorts of assumptions about what the comets were doing and on the frontispiece there is a stunning woodcut of our Lady of Guadalupe. If we can show that to students, and to anyone who connects with that image on a cultural or personal level, seeing her in 1680 appearing in the heavens is just incredible. There is also a stunning celestial map. I think this treatise helps us answer one of the questions which is what were the effects of 16th century exchanges between Spanish and native peoples of broader Mexico. If we have something published in 1680 from Mexico City, that just opens up this whole other way of thinking about what that exchange was. There are so many things like this in the collection that surprise you, take you deeper, or challenge assumptions you might carry with you. 

Kino, Eusebio, Exposicion astronomica de el cometa, que el año de 1680 : por los meses de noviembre, y diziembre, y este año de 1681, por los meses de enero y febrero, se ha visto en todo el mundo, y le ha observado en la ciudad de Cadiz, California Historical Society, Vault 523.6 K624e

The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) is a statewide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to improving K-12 student literacy and learning in history-social science. Each year the CHSSP serves more than 4,000 teachers in over 150 different professional learning programs at local schools and universities. The CHSSP also served as the primary writers of California’s History-Social Science Framework. The CHSSP is part of the California Subject Matter Projects, administered by UC Office of the President.

The California Historical Society, founded in 1871, is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to make California's richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives.

Funded by a $5 million grant from the State Department of Education to the California Historical Society, Teaching California offers schools and teachers classroom-ready resources designed to engage students in exciting and inspiring investigations of the past. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, this dynamic tool presents a research-based approach to improve student reading, writing, critical thinking and civic engagement, all aligned with the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework.

In summer 2019, the Teaching California website will launch with instructional resource materials for every grade. This curriculum is being developed by the California Historical Society and its partner, the California History-Social Science Project, two organizations dedicated to improving students’ understanding of the past and promoting inquiry, engagement, evidence-based interpretation, and language proficiency. Teaching California integrates both Common Core and English Language Development Standards.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Celebrating a California Surfing Pioneer

My Los Angeles childhood was defined by a relationship with South Bay beach culture. My heroes were the men and women who lifeguarded our local beaches, the surf legends of lore - like Greg Noll or Donald Takayama - who started their careers in Hermosa Beach, the surfers paddling out each morning at El Porto, and my neighbors, who were doing awe inspiring and insane things like kayaking the California coastline in its entirety or swimming the 22 miles from Catalina Island back to LA.

Hearing about Governor Brown’s August 20th actions making surfing California’s official state sport prompted me to remember one of the state’s first ambassadors of surfing, George Freeth. Freeth embodied all of the aforementioned heroic traits and more. Born in Honolulu, HI in 1883, Freeth was the son of an Irish sea captain father and a half Polynesian mother. He began surfing at 19, shortly after decades of Calvinist missionary influence had worked to disrupt indigenous participation in the traditional Polynesian activity. According to surf historian Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Freeth gave a surf lesson to the author Jack London in the summer of 1907. London described his instructor as a "sea-god . . .a brown Mercury. . . calm and superb."

George Freeth, Redondo Beach

Later that year, Freeth became one of the first watermen to bring surfing to the California Coast, an attribution shared with the Hawaiian princes who travelled to Santa Cruz in the 1800s. After leaving Hawaii, Freeth travelled to Southern California, where he instructed the public on surfing, swimming, and lifesaving techniques. Freeth became California’s first professional lifeguard in 1907 and subsequently taught dozens of men, women, and children surfing and lifesaving skills. He pioneered surf breaks from San Diego to Huntington Beach, Palos Verdes, and Ventura, popularizing the sport. He is also recognized as responsible for bring the Hawaiian swim team to California for the first time. One of these visiting swimmers was the Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, who is viewed as the godfather of modern surfing.

George Freeth, Redondo, 1907

Freeth was subsequently recruited by developers like Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney to conduct demonstrations at the Redondo Beach and Venice Piers as a marketing strategy to draw crowds to their development projects. Freeth’s demonstrations drew thousands of spectators and successfully promoted beach culture in the Southland. Once-wary beachgoers became emboldened by Freeth’s actions and the lifesaving strategies, which were responsible for protecting thousands of lives and have informed lifesaving agencies to this day.

I first learned of Freeth during a weeklong training I attended as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard, where Lifeguard Historian Arthur Verge recounted Freeth’s story. Coincidentally, several months ago, while sorting through CHS’s old issues of the journal California History, I found an image of Freeth. In a 2001 copy of the Journal, Vol. 80, No. 2/3, Dr. Verge laid out Freeth’s life history, including a daring rescue of 11 Japanese fishermen off of the Santa Monica pier. If interested, copies of this issue can be found through UC Press.

George Freeth, Hermosa Beach

Tragically, Freeth died of Spanish influenza in 1919 at the age of 35 at a military base in San Deigo; however, his legacy lives on today. Freeth’s statue stands on the Redondo Beach pier. Coincidentally, Redondo Beach also happens to be where I first taught Junior lifeguards of my own, and it remains one of my favorite places to work as a lifeguard, carrying on Freeth’s commitment to ocean safety and education.

These days, Redondo Beach and much of the coastline that Freeth pioneered would be entirely unrecognizable to the Hawaiian and his surfing contemporaries. Coinciding with the development boom of the early 20th century, developers Huntington, Kinney, and others were successful in their marketing campaigns. Southern California has now developed nearly beyond recognition. However, despite this, the spirit, tenacity, and love of the ocean still remains alive in the beach communities that Freeth first touched over a century ago.


Greer Montgomery works as a Development Assistant for the California Historical Society. There she supports fundraising and membership efforts and also enjoys looking at historic photos of the California coastline- especially when they include waves. She is an avid surfer and continues to work as a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard each summer.

Images courtesy of Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing

Thursday, August 23, 2018

California's Enduring Diversity

After years of researching California history, I am still struck by the state’s long-standing population diversity and cultural vibrancy. To come across an image such as this one reminds me that the state’s cultural richness is sometimes on parade, but is more often simply - and meaningfully - woven into all we see around us and in images from the past.

Mexican American caballero with the horse 'Puente,' La Fiesta, Los Angeles; General Subjects Photography collection; PC-GS; California Historical Society. 

In the fourth grade, students begin the year by studying California’s native peoples from the Pre-Columbian to the Mexican Rancho period, and learn that their lives varied considerably from one geographic region to the next, and that there were approximately 100 distinct dialects in use. The curriculum continues with an examination of the different European explorers arriving in California from the sixteenth century onward. Fourth graders also study the gold rush, when a truly global population descended upon the U.S. territory. Following these investigations of California’s rich diversity, the new History-Social Science Framework adopted by the CA State Board of Education poses a question to accompany the next content standard: “What was life like for California’s diverse population at the turn of the century?”

For the Teaching California curriculum project, the California Historical Society (CHS) and the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) are working together to identify and contextualize primary sources that illuminate California, U.S., and world history, and to align these with the new Framework. For this particular Framework question on California’s diverse population at the turn of the twentieth century, we are drawing from the CHS’s rich collection of images and documents that provide insight into the opportunities many newcomers enjoyed, as well as the hardships that some experienced on account of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

I was particularly struck by the record of a speech given by Rep. Cowdery in 1874 about the importance of integrating African-American - “Negro” - students in public schools. I learned that African-Americans in California organized as early as the 1870s to point out the difference between the rights recently afforded them in the 14th Amendment, and their children’s treatment in California’s segregated school system.

“Last fall there assembled at Sacramento a body of colored citizens, demanding all the rights their citizenship entitled them to.”

“Under…our political code the children of negroes must attend separate schools. This would not be objectionable, provided the State has furnished separate schools equal to those for white children…It is clear the State has not performed her duty in this respect.”

Students reading these words (with the historical context and literacy support provided) will learn that segregation in schools was common in these years, and that it was a group of parents who demanded better for their children. Teachers may choose to link this to the long struggle for civil rights in public schools, both in California and throughout the nation.

While students learn that these civil rights were not always realized quickly or fully (and in the case of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for instance, new barriers were erected), they also learn that people in California from many different backgrounds created numerous opportunities for themselves. This image of a Chinese float during the 1902 “La Fiesta” parade in Los Angeles, helps students see the long history of people honoring their cultures and sharing them with others through festivals like these that brought together California’s diverse peoples. 

Chinese Dragon. La Fiesta Parade, Los Angeles, Cal., 1902 May 2; General Subjects Photography collection; PC-GS; California Historical Society 

We find evidence of California’s turn-of-the-century population diversity in much more than these brief celebrations. In an era when newspapers were one of the only ways to communicate with a broad number of people, ethnic communities used this print media to stay connected and establish themselves within broader society. 

Various newspapers, 1879; Henry D. Cogswell Time Capsule Collection, MS 559; California Historical Society. 

Today’s students will no doubt identify with this language diversity. The California Department of Education identifies 65 different language groups spoken among the state’s public school students. Through the Teaching California project, we are striving to provide classroom materials that represent California’s historic population diversity. We believe that students will be more engaged in learning about the past when they can see themselves represented in California’s story. 


This post comes from Shelley Alden Brooks, a scholar of California and environmental history. She holds a doctorate from the University of California, Davis, and together with the California History Social Science Project is developing history-social science curriculum for Teaching California. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, Teaching California presents a research-based approach to improving student reading, writing, and critical thinking.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

5 Summer Destinations Full of California History

California is a land brimming with stunning natural landscapes, diverse cultures, and deep histories. As a tribute to summer freedom and exploration, we’ve come up with a short list of destinations across the state that provide an opportunity for adventurers of all ages to engage with their surrounding while learning about the people and events that came before them. Each photo included below comes from our permanent collection and will be featured in Teaching California, a set of new classroom-ready history curriculum resources set to become available next Summer. The images provide a glimpse into the past, framing each destination as it once was and prompting consideration of how time, change, and human experience shape the places around us.

[Crystal Cave, Sequoia National Park, undated]; [California Counties photograph collection]; California Historical Society, CHS2016_2135.
The natural wonder of the Sierra Nevada cannot be overstated with geologic masterpieces shaped by millions of years of interaction between glaciers and rocks resulting in canyons, jagged peaks, domes, rivers, vast waterfalls, and the highest mountain peak in the contiguous U.S., Mount Whitney. 

The area that is now Sequoia National Park was first inhabited for thousands of years by Native American groups, each with a unique culture and language including: the Western Mono (Monache), the Foothills Yokuts, and the Tubatulablal. In the early 1800s, fur trappers arrived followed by gold seekers and eventually loggers, all hoping to make a claim to the area’s rich natural resources.

One of the most prized of these resources was the Giant Sequoia tree. Giant Sequoias can live to be 3,000 years old while growing to be more than 300 feet tall and 100 feet in circumference, making them one of earth’s largest living organisms. These epic proportions made the trees extremely attractive to fortune seekers who descended upon the Sierra Nevada during the 19th century and whole groves of ancient forest were leveled during this period.

Sequoia National Park was formed in 1890 as the nation’s second national park to put an end to deforestation and to protect the massive trees. The park is home to three of the top 5 largest sequoia trees on earth. 

What to do:

  • Tour Crystal Cave. Beneath the shade of massive trees lies more than 250 underground marble caves. Crystal Cave is the only one open to the public and is filled will walls of marble, stalactites, and stalagmites.
  •  Visit the Giant Forest Museum. The museum is the starting point for visits to the Giant Forest sequoia grove and provides visitors with an opportunity to learn about local ecosystems. The Giant Forest includes the famous General Sherman tree, currently the largest living organism on the planet, by volume.
  •  Visit Buck Rock Lookout. Built in 1923, Buck Rock is one of the oldest fire lookout buildings still in use in the area and is the place where rangers once sat to scan for smoke signifying forest fires.

     2.  San Francisco’s Chinatown
[Street scene, Chinatown, San Francisco, circa 1910]; [San Francisco Subjects photograph collection, box 9, folder 16]; California Historical Society.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America as well as the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. In 1848 the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. The discovery of gold as well as the building of the transcontinental railroad resulted in a large increase in the Chinese population within the city and a large portion settled in a community in the center of the city known as Chinatown.  The entire neighborhood was destroyed in the massive fire that followed the 1906 earthquake and was eventually rebuilt with tourism in mind.

What to do:
  • Walk through Portsmouth Square. The city’s oldest public square was established in the early 1800s in the community of Yerba Buena, which later became San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay’s shoreline was only about a block away. The park is now a bustling Chinatown community fixture where locals gather to catch up with friends, play mahjong, or practice tai chi.

[Children participating in a religious ceremony on Olvera Street, Los Angeles, undated]; [California Historical Society collection, 1860-1960]; University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society, CHS-36243.
Los Angeles was founded by Spanish settlers in 1781 on a site close to what is now El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Mexican independence in 1821 welcomed the establishment of the first streets and adobe structures in that same area, a place that we now associate with the heart of LA’s original Mexican community. As Los Angeles rapidly expanded throughout the late 1800s and beyond, the original settlement fell into disrepair. In the 1920s, Christine Sterling launched a revitalization campaign to restore the historic pueblos and create a modern marketplace and tourist destination which celebrated Mexican history and culture.

What to do:
  • Take in Olvera street. Explore the colorful Mexican marketplace, shop for handcrafted items and folk art, fill up on tacos at outdoor cafés, and listen to strolling mariachi music. Olvera Street, originally named Vine Street after the vineyards that spread across the area, is full of well-preserved historic buildings.
  • Tour Avila Adobe. Built in 1818, the Avila Adobe is the oldest existing residence in LA and was the home of wealthy cattle rancher and Mexican native, Francisco Avila. A tour of the home will give you an idea of how the first settlers in the area lived under Spanish rule and the structure itself is built from local resources including clay from the LA River and tar from the La Brea Tar Pits. 
  • See the Siqueiros mural. “América Tropical” was painted on the side of the old Italian Hall in 1932 by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. The mural was controversial due to its imperialist subject matter and was whitewashed soon after its creation. The mural was rediscovered in the 1960s and recent efforts have restored it. It can be seen from a viewing platform on Olvera Street. 

4.  Sonoma County 
[Three children in a Sonoma County chicken ranch, undated]; [California Historical Society collection, 1860-1960]; University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society, CHS-45631. 
Sonoma is a diverse region known for its wine, cheese, redwood forests, rolling pastoral hills, and dramatic coastline. Pomo, Coast Miwok, and Kashaya peoples were the earliest human inhabitants and the land was later utilized by Europeans looking for fur, timber, and fertile farmland.  After California became a state in 1850, Sonoma was increasingly settled by the local logging, cattle ranching, poultry farming, fruit processing, and winemaking industries.

What to do:
  • Explore Fort Ross. Fort Ross Historic Park was once a Kashaya Native settlement and later became  a Russian settlement and fur trading post before becoming a hub for agriculture and logging. The area is now a state park which showcases the Russian-era fort.
  • Go on a Sonoma County farm tour. Take part in one of the many farm tours offered throughout the area’s verdant hills and farmland. Take your pick from offerings by local farms and ranches including cheese making classes, sustainable farming demonstrations, and goat cuddling. Buy fresh eggs or be the first in line for organic peaches. Many farms are family-run and focused on sustainability.
  •  Explore Mission San Francisco Solano. The mission is the 21st and last mission founded in California in 1823 and the only mission founded after Mexico’s independence from Spain. The mission is part of Sonoma State Historic Park which also includes Sonoma military barracks built by General Vallejo and is where the first bear flag was raised over California declaring it a republic, independent from Mexico.

   4. Mojave Desert
[Two Mojave Indian girls standing in front of a small dwelling with a thatched roof, 1900]; [Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, 1860-1960]; University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society, CHS-1241. 
We don’t necessarily suggest a trip to the Mojave during the middle of the summer – but this trip can be saved for a bit later into the fall when temperatures have dropped a tad.

The Mojave is an arid desert full of Joshua trees and one of the driest places in North America. Located between the Great Basin Desert in the north and the Sonoran to the south, this desert plays host to the Mojave National Preserve as well as parts of Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks. The Chemehuevi and Mojave peoples were nomadic residents of the region for thousands of years living off of prickly pear, mesquite, agave, deer and bighorn sheep. Europeans arrived in 1776 and throughout the 1800’s settlers came to the area searching for gold, copper, iron, and silver.

What to do: 
  • Visit Mojave National Preserve. This 1.6-million-acre park is full of sand dunes, Joshua trees, wildflowers, volcanic cinder cones, canyons, mountains, limestone caves, petroglyphs, abandoned mines and military outposts. Hike, camp, and explore, making a stop at the Kelso Depot a Spanish Mission Revival style railroad stop opened in 1924.
Of course, the destinations listed above are only a glimpse into the myriad of experiences available to explore the colorful stories of California. As summer draws to a close, we encourage you to harness what time you have available and get out to explore the history of the state.


by Katie Peeler, California Historical Society

Monday, August 13, 2018

Engaging Local Youth Through Exquisite Mural Project

During the Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, public murals became an essential form of artist response and public voice. They were a means of challenging the status quo and expressing both pride and frustration during a time when other channels of communication were limited for the Mexican American community. Because they threatened established authority, Chicana/o murals were often censored, neglected, whitewashed, or destroyed

As part of the current exhibition ¡Murales Rebeldes!—L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege, the California Historical Society created a program to engage youth, many of Latino heritage, who live and go to school in the Mission District of San Francisco, an area renowned for its murals. We named the program Exquisite Mural after the old parlor game “exquisite corpse,” in which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.

Over the course of the program, roughly 200 students from Jamestown Community Center and Mission Community Beacon joined us in our gallery to take part in the project.

Before the children participated in the Exquisite Mural Project, I lead them on a tour of the gallery and discussed three of the mural artists featured in the exhibition. The kids have shown an incredible amount of empathy for the artists, asking multiple times “Why did they have to paint over the mural? Why did they have to destroy the mural?” The children are also very keen on knowing if the muralists were still alive and were fascinated when told that I had met a few of them. Some of the kids were able to meet muralist Ernesto de la Loza, who led a personal tour of his section of the exhibition and stayed to participate in the mural making activity.

Resurrection of the Green Planet by Ernesto de la Loza

In our version of the game, a mini mural is created collaboratively as a triptych, which basically means a three-part picture. A child would complete the first panel of the picture, then, two mural artists, one from Los Angeles and one from San Francisco, each drew on one of the remaining two panels. The person drawing did not know what the person before them had created due to the paper being folded, rendering the other images hidden. I explained to the kids that they might treat the Exquisite Mural as a concept drawing that they could use to build on if they were to paint a full-scale mural.

Using stories as a backdrop, the youth explored themes raised by the exhibition and its featured mural artists such as displacement, activism, immigration, cultural heritage, racism, memory, feminism, and censorship. The art created by the kids embodied similar ideas with many of the kids expressing pride towards their heritage by painting the flags of countries from where they or their families are from. Much of the art included imagery of peace, unity, and friendship.

The most fulfilling thing about this project was seeing the kids who were initially adamant about “not being able to draw” or saw themselves as “not artists” come up with really creative pieces of art inspired by iconography that they saw in the gallery. Some spoke with me about how they were used to seeing the Virgen de Guadalupe at home. Mermaids and dinosaurs were other popular subjects that resonated with the group. These conversations were a great opportunity to help the kids understand that anybody can be an artist and that each muralist they had learned about were once kids themselves.

The Exquisite Mural art will be showcased in the CHS galleries beginning August 25th. We plan to celebrate the hanging of the murals with the youth participants and their family during an afternoon reception, poetry reading, and discussion with artists of all ages.

by Erik Zuniga, Guest Concierge and Exquisite Mural project group leader

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Night of Tar, Feathers, and Terror: Anti-labor Vigilantism in Sonoma

Each July since 1994, San Francisco has played host to LaborFest, an event established to institutionalize the history and culture of working people in an annual labor cultural, film, and arts festival. As part of this year’s LaborFest, CHS hosted an evening gallery talk entitled A Night of Tar, Feathers, and Terror: Anti-labor Vigilantism in Sonoma.

In the evening of August 21, 1935 a band of vigilantes abducted Sol Nitzberg—a Jewish Sonoma County chicken farmer—along with three other labor organizers. Nitzberg and Silva Green (another organizer) were tarred and feathered and forced by the mob to parade through Santa Rosa. For our event, Barry Nitzberg—grandson of Sol Nitzberg— and historian Ken Kann were present at the CHS galleries to unpack the history of labor organizing in and vigilante terror in Sonoma County, including the 1935 Sebastopol Apple Pickers Strike, the assault on Nitzberg and Green, and the role of ACLU in the subsequent trial.

CHS member Oliver Pollak wrote the following response and event recap in the evening in the San Diego Jewish World:

"Imagine, 1974 was 39 years after the event, and 2018 was 44 years after the book. Who would still be interested 83 years after the event? Well, an over-flow crowd of one hundred fifty people attended, some were sitting on the staircase. These children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends of Zionists, Communists, Socialists, the old left, anarchists and some red diaper babies listened intently and then asked questions, some of which recalled the tension between the Rechters (right wing) and Linkers (left wing), echoes of the McCarthy anti-communist inquisition, Israel socialism and Zionism in Israel."

Read more here.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Designing for our audiences in Teaching California

The California Historical Society (CHS) and its partners at The California History and Social Science Project (CHSSP) have the unique opportunity, thanks to a substantial grant from the state’s Department of Education, to develop Teaching California, a free K-12 online curriculum that puts California’s archives at the center of student investigation into the past. Crucial to this initiative will be taking a co-designing approach with the audiences we want to engage, so that what is created is as discoverable and widely-used by those audiences as possible.

Brainstorming Teaching California audiences in an internal session at CHS in early April. Questions explored included: Who are the people or groups reached directly by Teaching California? Which are more peripherally relevant but still stand to benefit from what we create?

When embarking on a user-centered design approach, the first step is to identify and gain empathy for your users. For our project team, this meant making our implicit primary audiences explicit and discussing the range of periphery audiences who stand to benefit from what we create.

On April 25th, CHS and CHSSP teammates met for a session to do just that and to determine what success for those audiences might look like as we plan for website development. CHSSP, based out of the University of California at Davis, are teacher professional development experts and the primary authors of the state’s recently adopted History and Social Science Framework, which provides the foundation for our content work on Teaching California.

The CHS and CHSSP teams reviewing Teaching California primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences and what signifies success for those audiences at an all-hands-on-deck session on April 25th, 2018.

While teachers unsurprisingly emerged as a core primary audience, the California County Offices of Education also emerged as primary audiences for what will be a crucial role in project dissemination to local teachers. And we could not forget that Teaching California will be important to the growth and development of both the CHSSP and CHS organizations, who will also serve as important primary audiences. This was a fun and productive session and our group cycled through many self-adhesive flipcharts!

Following this session, we worked with CHSSP to develop basic user profiles for the primary audiences we identified. User profiles acts as a cursory audience examination, allowing a project team to think more holistically about a project and to start to tie ‘why’ a project is being developed together with ‘whom’ it is being developed for. While we will have the opportunity to continue a more in-depth audience analysis in the coming months, this exercise allowed us to scope out the basic needs and motivations of those we will be designing for.

An excerpt of the questions we explored to form our user profiles.

As we aim for statewide reach for Teaching California, which we hope will help spur Framework adoption across all corners of the state, identifying our audiences has helped our CHS website design team address some important challenges including: How can we create an online resource for the diverse California school communities teachers serve, and how can we co-design with them throughout the project to continue addressing needs? 

We are looking forward to continuing to develop out our process for co-designing for our audiences, so follow along with our progress here!

The California Historical Society is working in partnership with the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) at UC Davis to establish and implement Teaching California: a free and expansive online set of instructional materials to support the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums. Teaching California presents a research-based approach to improving student reading, writing, and critical thinking.  This post comes from Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager. You can reach out to her at